Jimmy Stewart Eighth Air Force

Faces

Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe by Robert Matzen

I watched a Louise Brooks picture the other night, Diary of a Lost Girl, a 1929 German silent directed by Georg Wilhelm Pabst. I’m not here to talk about Diary of a Lost Girl except to say, I didn’t get it. What happens happens slowly, and often without title screens, all in keeping with the New Objectivity of the time. As reflected in his pictures of the ’20s, G.W. Pabst’s world—Germany at the tail end of the Goldene Zwanziger, the Golden Twenties—was bleak and seedy, a socio-political vacuum that the National Socialists would soon be inhabiting. I’m sure many of you can give me a dozen reasons why Diary of a Lost Girl is good or great, but I can only speak for myself, and the slowly enveloping creepiness was a bit too much for me.

Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe by Robert Matzen

Louise Brooks in the late 1920s, sporting her distinctive and much-emulated hairstyle.

What held my attention was Louise Brooks. I sat mesmerized beginning to end looking at Louise Brooks in all manner of psychologically perilous situations. They called Helen of Troy “the face that launched a thousand ships,” and so Helen must have been Louise Brooks beautiful. If we were able to pull Louise Brooks off the spool of celluloid for Diary of a Lost Girl, she could be reinserted into any other filmstrip from any other time, and she would be just as arresting—and hopefully in better clothes.

I find all sorts of women to be beautiful for all sorts of reasons, outwardly and inwardly. You’re everywhere, you women, and I admire you all. And then there’s Louise Brooks. It does Brooks a disservice to say she’s sexy. She may be sexy in the traditional sense but it’s too symplistic term to be applied here. She grabs your attention when she appears and doesn’t let go. She’s got those big, dark, knowing, wide-set eyes and that severe dark hair framing her face and that wide mouth and flawless pale skin and wham, there’s nowhere else for your gaze to fall.

Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe by Robert Matzen

Louise never minded selling the sex angle.

Audrey Hepburn is another of those ship-launchers. There are a few out there who don’t get Audrey’s appeal. Maybe you’re one of them. As far as I’m concerned, Audrey could just stand there and not be a part of a plot or reciting lines or facing peril, just stand there, and I’d be watching that face with my mouth hanging open until she wasn’t there to look at anymore. I remember walking up a cobblestone street some months back in the ancient German town of Eppstein, this narrow little street with a few shops on it, and in one of the shop windows was an inexpensive little purse and my eye snagged on the purse because there was Audrey Hepburn’s face staring out from it. Time stood still. Five thousand miles from home, in Germany conducting research for a book on a dark 35-degree day in November, I didn’t know anything but, there’s Audrey. From one glimpse of that face applied to a commercial product.

Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe by Robert Matzen

Audrey Hepburn near the beginning of career, and toward the end of her life.

To my way of thinking, Audrey was as arresting near the end of her life as she was decades earlier in Roman Holiday, because, in her case, the beauty had deepened from all the living she had done and from decades of good deeds. There’s a sense of inner beauty from the face of a young Louise Brooks as well—she was by all accounts a smart, intuitive woman with a wicked sense of humor and strong independent streak.

My reading list is pretty long after finishing Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe (Coming Soon from GoodKnight Books—put it on your Christmas list now!) and among those titles is Lulu in Hollywood, a collection of the writings of Louise Brooks. I can’t imagine that this face was launched in Kansas, but that’s where she was born and raised. Supposedly she was molested as a child, which shaped her sexuality and, presumably, pointed her toward frank film performances, as well as a number of nude portrait sittings and many incendiary affairs. She made only a couple dozen films in a career spanning 13 years, in part because she snubbed her home studio, Paramount Pictures, just as sound arrived in 1929, the year of Diary of a Lost Girl. Among her credits was a picture with Carole Lombard, It Pays to Advertise, in 1931 with Carole on her way up and Louise sinking fast. Her last picture would be in 1938 and she’d be done in movies at age 32 and not rediscovered as a motion picture icon for another generation. How that face slipped from the mainstream for a while I’ll never understand.

Today the face of Louise Brooks has reemerged and collectors eagerly pay thousands for original still photos and movie posters featuring her, and I think it’s high time I added such a piece to my own collection and my wall. Productivity will suffer, because I’ll be staring with my mouth open quite a lot, but I can live with that if you can.

Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe by Robert Matzen

Bangs or no bangs, it all worked for Louise Brooks.

Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe by Robert Matzen

Maltin at the Bat

I grew up with Leonard Maltin. I don’t mean we flipped baseball cards and caught tadpoles; I mean one of my go-to books when I became interested in classic Hollywood as a teenager was the first book he wrote, Movie Comedy Teams detailing the Three Stooges, L&H, the Ritz Brothers, and my faves, the Marxes. I haven’t opened that book in years, but I still remember the narrative and every photo and caption because I read that book over and over and over.

Maltin was a child prodigy in film and began writing for Film Fan Monthly at the age of 13, then took over that periodical (at age 16) and ran it for 9 years. From there he began releasing his movie guides and became an on-air critic for Entertainment Tonight. Is there anyone among my readers who hasn’t owned at least one edition of Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide and consulted it before watching a picture to see how many stars Leonard gave it and why? In those dark times before the internet, there was nowhere else to find a thumbnail description of even something as obscure as The Secret Mark of D’Artagnan without Maltin and his guide. Today there’s imdb and Wikipedia, but back then, there was Maltin. Period.

Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe by Robert Matzen, Foreword by Leonard Maltin

Hollywood author and critic Leonard Maltin, now aboard the Mission team. (Photo by Jessie Maltin)

Leonard Maltin is a pop culture phenomenon, a guy who remains after all these years a big kid when it comes to movies, and I’m happy to report this particular phenom is writing the foreword for my just-completed book, Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe. It occurred to me that I could really use Maltin’s insights into Stewart, the war, and subsequent effects on his career. Leonard said he might be interested in such an assignment, send along the manuscript; so I did. I guess what he read was OK, because he said yes.

I’ve been giving a final look to the narrative the past few days because soon it will go off for galleys and I want it to be right—you know, t’s crossed and i’s dotted and all that. It’s easy to get so lost in the process that I’ll be sitting there and it’ll occur to me, “Wait, did I write that? I don’t remember writing that.” It is becoming a descent into madness among 117,000 words. There are places that make me laugh, give me chills, and reduce me to tears, all of which I consider to be good signs because the same thing happened with Fireball. It’s a different kind of a book, though, a different story and a different protagonist. Lombard was sexy and vivacious, someone you wish you could have known or at least experienced once. Stewart was an aloof man who was there and not there at the same time, an introvert without much to say who kept his significant intensities on the inside, and a guy who, as he aged, hid behind the persona he had created for the Tonight Show and other public outlets. He became what people expected to see, and behind his blue eyes were 50,000 memories of the war that he kept locked away and never related to anyone. The reason Mission is necessary is specifically because he wouldn’t talk, and what I discovered was that in refusing to let Hollywood exploit his wartime service for publicity purposes, he turned out the spotlight on a terrific cast of characters surrounding him in the Second Combat Wing of the Second Bombardment Division of the Eighth Air Force. You’re about to meet some great guys in Mission, guys Stewart knew and commanded, guys who in talking about their lives in combat allow us to know what Jim Stewart did in the war, who he flew with and against, and who died beside him. He wouldn’t tell us, but others tell us. We have these guys and the combat records, and from a great number of sources, including survivors who flew with him, I was able to recreate the war as Stewart knew it. The result is an adventure more fantastic than anything he ever enacted on-screen. In fact, it’s an adventure that could only be recreated today in a CG universe, at which point you wouldn’t believe it really happened. I assure you, it did.

Into this mix of Hollywood and war is about to step Leonard Maltin to provide his thought-provoking perspective, and the coolest thing of all? I get to be the first to read it.

Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe by Robert Matzen, Foreword by Leonard Maltin

Jim sports the Croix de Guerre, a medal awarded to all Eighth Air Force combat veterans at the end of the war. (Photo courtesy of the Jay Rubin Collection)

Rendering in 3D

I sat at the barber shop yesterday staring at a poster of the late Roberto Clemente framed on the wall. The shop is decorated with framed art of Pittsburgh sports heroes. The Clemente print showed various views of the one-time Pirates baseball star and I thought back to my youth sitting in the first row of the right-field bleachers watching Clemente up close. I know I’ve mentioned before that my sister would take me and Roberto knew her by name. Between innings when it was quiet he would talk to us in the stands and I remember this guy in brilliant, full-color 3D when he was more than a memory and a poster on a wall. Sitting there thinking about how long ago that was now made me both sad and nostalgic–we’re here on this earth for what really amounts to such a short time; it’s important to make each day count.

Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe by Robert Matzen

The poster on the barber shop wall.

Right now I’m busy trying to turn Capt. Jim Stewart back into a 3D human who flew in combat in World War II. The manuscript for Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe is now in final editing and I’m doing things like chapter notes, photo captions, and acknowledgments. I’m very happy with the book and think it will answer a lot of questions about Stewart’s service during the war. You want to talk about action and adventure; be sure to wear your safety harness and take your Dramamine because you’re in for quite a ride at 20,000 feet. Mission cleanup is why I’ve been so quiet this past month, because there’s a lot going on and not enough time. (Commercial plug: Look for the 400-page hardcover Mission, including 16 pages of rare photos, on Amazon and at a bookstore near you beginning October 24!)

For now I’d like to point you to an interesting Journeys in Classic Film think piece on Errol Flynn’s 1939 super-western, Dodge City. I also read this article at the barber shop (it was a long wait). I just loved being able to enjoy a fresh and thoughtful interpretation of this 77-year-old near masterpiece; it’s one of collections of words that makes me say, I wish I had written that. Actually, I wish I were smart enough to write that.

Enjoy, and I’ll be back soon with fresh material.

Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe by Robert Matzen

Errol and some of the boys.

Everything’s Relative

Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe by Robert Matzen

GoodKnight Books first look at the cover design for Mission, release date October 24, 2016.

As you may know, it snowed here in the Northeast. Actually it’s still snowing, so I got up this morning and decided to shovel the driveway. This is always something of an exercise because the driveway is very wide here at the top by the two-car garage and then narrows for the 216-foot descent to the road. Usually I just shovel the wide part near the house and a couple of tracks down the driveway, but this morning was different. Why? Because I’ve reached the stage on my new book where I’m confronting every word by reading it aloud (more on that later). So I went out to shovel the driveway at 7:30 this morning knowing that afterward, I had to come in here and confront. I kept shoveling, and shoveling, and then I decided, in a bizarre sort of work avoidance, to shovel the whole 216 feet because it was less strenuous than sitting here doing all that confronting. In 35 years of living here I had never shoveled the whole thing, you know, the whole width of the driveway from top to bottom; about three-fourths of the way through it, the sweat was in my eyes and the hair was frozen on my head since it was still snowing and it was accumulating up above my brain.

This was a very old-school experience, with a shovel, not a snow blower or a plow. I’m pretty sure the neighbors think I’m a lunatic but I wouldn’t know because I don’t know my neighbors (me being me). So anyway, I pretty much wrote this column in my head as I was shoveling all the way down the driveway to the road, eight inches of snow (and counting), thinking what I was doing was a lot easier than plowing through Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe aloud.

OK, why read Mission aloud, you ask? Well, back when I was writing Fireball, at a certain point I learned it would be an audiobook and I started thinking about how my good friend Tavia Gilbert, a nationally known, award-winning audiobook performer, would read it, which forced me to read Fireball aloud myself to hear what it would sound like as an audiobook. It was a highly worthwhile experience because confronting every word helped to iron out problems and strengthen the narrative. I heard the clinkers, realized what words I’d used too often, got reminded of things I forgot to include, and enjoyed one final opportunity to cut sections that didn’t hold up. This is the time to make a book sing. I highly recommend this step for anyone who writes anything about anything. Fiction, nonfiction, a letter to a client—whatever. Read it aloud to hear how it sounds.

Angelique when she's really into a chapter.

Angelique when she’s really into a chapter.

I’m up to chapter 36 on Mission and am pleased to report that I’ve given myself goosebumps in many places and made myself cry twice. There’s been only one chapter so far where I went, “This doesn’t sparkle.” Oddly, it was a chapter about one of Stewart’s missions over Germany, but it didn’t sparkle and still doesn’t, and I was alerted to this fact when I read it aloud. Actually, Angelique, our little peanut of a cat, was looking at me oddly when I was reading that chapter as she lounged on her perch beside my desk half asleep. She just wasn’t feeling that one, so I knew it needed more work and I flagged it for some final reconstruction at the very end of the process.

It only took about a year and a half to write Fireball, and it’s taken about that long to write Mission. I learned a great deal from Morticia Addams, who said one time on The Addams Family, “All work and no play gets books done.” It was an episode from around 1965 when Morticia decided to be a writer and Gomez found her in the dungeon or somewhere writing away and said what was she doing. That’s when she said, “All work and no play gets books done,” and that sentiment really got to me, to the extent that for years I had it posted in front of me here in the office in 60-pt type. For the past year and a half I’ve been all work and no play to the extent I don’t watch TV, and only hear about the local sports teams on the news the next day. Day job, night job, day job, night job, that’s the routine. Most of the weekend it’s the night job. The words pile up that way (like snow during a storm), with the goal being 1,000 an evening most evenings, and they don’t have to be good words, just bulk words to be sanded and polished later. Sometimes, when I was writing the stories of the actual missions, I’d listen to music. A little Von Suppe’s Light Cavalry here, some Elmer Bernstein movie music there, a little Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance for martial spice. You know how well Richard Wagner worked for Apocalypse Now—symphonic really works for B-24 missions over Europe, and for the German viewpoint fighting the bombers as well.

So this morning I shoveled all the way down the 216 feet of driveway, a seven-foot-wide path, and at the road had to make my way through the big pile left by the borough snow plows going past. I was terribly pleased with myself. Ha! Take that, neighbors. I had avoided work for 90 minutes or whatever it was, and I trudged back up the cleared driveway only to realize, Oh shit! It’s still snowing, and the top is covered in snow, and I HAVE TO START ALL OVER AGAIN. I had avoided my work a little too well.

There’s your little slice of life from Snowmageddon 2016 here in Pennsylvania.

Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe by Robert Matzen

View from the top after I was “done,” with snow covering everything all over again. Oh well, I avoided it as long as I could–time to get to work.

HIGH HOPES AND A BATTLE

Mission: James Stewart by Robert Matzen

British Airborne troops flash the V-for-Victory sign and give thumbs up on the way to their drop zone near Arnhem.

Once upon a time, all-star films were all the rage. I was trying to figure out when it started and I’m sure you know better than I. Was it The Story of Mankind? That pre-dates Around the World in 80 Days, right? Then the all-star game found war pictures and The Longest Day was born, which I consider the go-to look at D-Day even though it was G-rated and the real thing was For Adults Only. No, really, the real thing wasn’t for anyone, it was so brutal. I’m always struck by the opening moments of Saving Private Ryan, a picture I despised otherwise, when the gate of the landing craft went down in the surf near the beach, and we saw a glimpse of what the guys really went through.

Darryl Zanuck had the vision for The Longest Day, and it worked in spite of its lumbering, all-star self. Next came The Great Escape, probably the most successful of the all-star service pictures. Then Zanuck tried it again with Tora, Tora, Tora! about Pearl Harbor, and his all-star cast wasn’t quite so stellar for budgetary reasons, but the picture still succeeded, I think because the stars weren’t so big they demanded their own vignettes. It became an ensemble of very good but not overwhelming players—exactly the feel achieved in The Great Escape.

Mission: James Stewart by Robert Matzen

One-sheet movie poster for A Bridge too Far, released in 1977.

Midway was a last gasp at the traditional, all-star war picture told with old-time apple-pie sensibilities, even though we then lived in the post-MASH, post-Catch-22 world of revisionism, a world that had already seen The Dirty Dozen and Kelly’s Heroes, which overlaid modern sensibilities on World War II. I saw Midway in a big theater on first release in 1976 and thought it was OK at best. A veteran of the war in the South Pacific who also saw it was laughing afterward at the mismatched stock footage and wrongly placed vintage aircraft depicted; by this time the pickings of available fighter-bombers was already pretty slim. Really, Midway had the ambition but not the budget and needed the gimmick of the day, sub-woofer Sensurround, to try to put derrieres into seats.

In the wake of Midway, there was one great World War II historical novel by Cornelius Ryan hanging out there that hadn’t been brought to the screen, A Bridge Too Far, about a well-meaning, wrong-headed plan called Operation Market Garden that sought to bring World War II to a rapid close in September 1944. Producer Joseph E. Levine envisioned A Bridge Too Far as an all-star service picture with a script by William Goldman that made no bones about bludgeoning the audience with Monday morning quarterbacking and an “Isn’t this ironic?” attitude.

I’m not going to critique the resulting picture. Either you like it or you don’t. What I will say is it’s quite a setup for actually visiting Arnhem, where the action took place, and the history is heavy there in those streets where British paratroopers went up against a ferocious last-stand German defense. In a nutshell, a large force of British paratroopers were dropped near the Dutch city of Arnhem behind German lines to capture a key bridge over the Rhine as part of a larger plan involving a sudden Allied push north through Holland to cut the German front in two. We drop you up here, we slice north from down here, we meet up in Arnhem, war over. Simple. Dismissed, see you at the surrender ceremony.

Mission: James Stewart by Robert Matzen

Artwork in the British Airborne Museum in Arnhem shows the battle for the bridge, with Tommies who were unequipped to fight tanks holding off advancing German armor.

Mission: James Stewart by Robert Matzen

Roughly the same view in November 2015 at sunset.

The plan was complicated by only one wee little factor: German forces fleeing the Allied advance through France after D-Day were ordered to regroup at none other than Arnhem. I mean, at just about the time the paratroopers were climbing aboard their aircraft in England, the Germans just happened to be stopping in Arnhem. Many didn’t even have weapons—they had turned them in because they were about to board trains back to Berlin for refitting. They were just there, weary and shell-shocked after the Allied invasion, thinking they were about to see home. Then here come these poor British paratroopers dropping all around, guys who thought they would be fighting a few Nazi-sympathizer Dutch home guard troops. Instead, a couple divisions of SS Panzers and what was left of the real German army got the surprise of their lives as British paratroopers floated to earth, and then the Germans regrouped, outnumbered the Tommies, and took care of business. The dreamed-of liberation of Arnhem’s besieged population became a bloodbath for British soldiers, first at the Arnhem Bridge and then in the city center where the paratroopers retreated.

Mission: James Stewart by Robert Matzen

The overwhelming sight of graves for all the British and Polish paratroopers who died in the Battle of Arnhem.

Two weeks ago I was in Arnhem to get a feel for the Dutch people—to get their vibe for the portions of Mission that take place in Holland. They drive on the right side of the road in Holland, thank God, so tooling around the countryside was a lot of fun, but did you know they don’t have windmills anymore? Only one traditional windmill, ONE, was seen in hundreds of miles of Holland. All they’ve got these days are wind turbines, giant, cold, silent wind turbines like you can find anywhere. I had to wonder what Don Quixote would think of this unfortunate turn of events.

So anyway, back to the Richard Attenborough-directed picture, A Bridge Too Far. All right, I will critique it. There was a whole lot to explain and too many times the explanations weren’t clear or clever enough so it just seemed like a lotta explosions. We don’t get a sense of the ultimate irony that the Germans just happened to be regrouping here of all places, which makes the parachute drop so heartbreaking for these brave, well-meaning Tommies who expected to win the war in a week and ended up in a Custer’s Last Stand scenario in downtown Arnhem.

No, I take that back. The worst thing about A Bridge Too Far is Ryan O’Neal, who at 36 was just clueless portraying a real-life general of roughly the same age. If you watch the picture you have to wonder what the real actors around him were thinking as he so cluelessly recited his lines.

No, I take that back. The worst thing about A Bridge Too Far is Gene Hackman’s Polish accent. He seemed to know he couldn’t get it right, but he soldiered on anyway. That’s bravery, in the actor sense of bravery, which isn’t quite the paratrooper sense of it.

No! The worst thing about A Bridge Too Far is the Americans. Yes, that’s it, the Americans. Because it was an all-star picture and U.S. box office meant everything, the American stars had to have big parts. A-number-1 big star of the day, Robert Redford, got a 15-minute vignette as an Airborne major ordered to get his men across a river in poor-quality rowboats; B-number-2 star of the day, James Caan, got 10 solid minutes as a sergeant trying to save an officer’s life; C-number-3 star of the day, Elliott Gould, negotiated for 15 minutes of screen time to build a Bailey bridge. Yes the American 82nd and 101st Airborne mattered to the plot, just not enough to justify all the close-ups. This is a British story—just let it be a British story.

Mission: James Stewart by Robert Matzen

Anthony Hopkins as Col. John Frost, leading his confident men into battle after a successful parachute drop near Arnhem.

Then there’s the best thing about A Bridge Too Far, Anthony Hopkins as Col. John Frost trying to take and hold Arnhem Bridge, and then continuing the fight until his ammo and food ran out. He earned his way onto my Mt. Rushmore of great screen characterizations of all time with his take on the quintessential, stiff-upper-lip British officer in a hopeless situation. In this picture, Anthony Hopkins is simply, how can I say this … perfect. It’s worth it for anyone to slog through A Bridge Too Far to get to the Hopkins moments because they are magical. He is all those British boys rolled into one. He is every corpuscle of every man who fought and died on those streets in 1944.

Walking across the now-called John Frostbrug (John Frost Bridge) in Arnhem was a chilling experience knowing what happened there. Visiting the Airborne Cemetery had me in tears the instant I saw all those smart formations of headstones, each representing a brave Tommy or Pole who paid the ultimate price. I wasn’t prepared for the emotion of that moment, especially with plaques at the gates of the cemetery in multiple languages that included photos of the Airborne guys in the planes on the way over the North Sea flashing V-for-victory signs, all smiles as they flew with their high hopes and noble intentions only to die in a hail of machine gun fire on the streets of Arnhem, a city that had been spared the nastiness of war until those brutal, unexpected days of September 1944 when British Airborne met the SS and their Panzers.

Mission: Jimmy Stewart by Robert Matzen

Two British paratroopers holed up in a house in Oosterbeek (next to Arnhem) fought to the last and recorded their kills by date in September 1944 on the wallpaper. Their strident message reflects the thoughts of my friend Clem, contributor to Mission, who flew with Jimmy Stewart and was shot down over Holland. “There’s no glory in war,” said Clem. “War is crazy.”

Mission: James Stewart by Robert Matzen

Morning dew kisses three cut roses placed on a monument honoring Allied war dead. The Dutch people fell in love with their would-be liberators the British Airborne, and that love is undiminished 71 years later.

On a Mission for ‘Mission’

 

Mission: Jimmy Stewart by Robert Matzen

Jimmy Stewart risks his crisp uniform walking the muddy track at Tibenham in front of crew quarters.

It’s been more than 18,000 miles since I last updated this blog. First came a business trip from Pittsburgh to Portland and back, followed almost immediately by a nine-day excursion to Europe as background research for Mission, the Jimmy Stewart book now under construction.

As you know if you know me, I don’t believe an author can write about a physical place significant to a story without having been there. I consider the locations to be characters because of their importance to the narrative, and I didn’t feel qualified to write about, for instance, Mt. Potosi, Nevada, where TWA Flight 3 crashed, until I had climbed it. In the same way, I can’t in good faith describe the 1943-44 U.S. Army air base in Tibenham, England, without visiting the runways where Stewart and so many other fliers took off, many never to return.

Remaining Tibenham air base crew quarters as explored just last week.

Remaining Tibenham air base crew quarters as explored just last week.

Stewart was a four-engine-rated Army pilot when he first landed at Tibenham November 25, 1943. He spent four months there during his heaviest run of combat missions. My November 23 and 24 (last week) were boots on the ground in Tibenham, where I experienced what the Americans did upon touching down: cold, damp, muddy weather, unrelenting, with very low overcast. By 4:20 P.M. on the days I visited, it was dark in Tibenham, which, until the Americans arrived, and after they left, was nothing more than a meandering village located along even more meandering roads wide enough for one ox cart of ye olden days, but not for motor vehicles.

As for my visit, you probably know that cars drive on the left in UK, which seems like it shouldn’t be a big deal, but with the deck stacked by rain and country roads with nothing over there called a “shoulder,” it becomes a big deal, especially with trucks barreling toward me—on the right no less. And there are lots of trucks driving around over there, careening around the hairpin turns. Then there’s that thing the English call a roundabout—every town has one or more. I’m pretty sure the Brits designed roundabouts to thin the herd of visiting Americans trying to navigate from the left while at the same time figuring out when to yield, when to proceed, and when to turn, always at high speed. But enough of my whining.

Mission: Jimmy Stewart by Robert Matzen

Rare is the idiot, er, scholar, who would fly across an ocean, bypass London, and head straight for a rainy field near Norwich where once an air base stood. Here is runway 0-3, the big one at Tibenham. From here the 445th Bomb Group took off almost daily, weather permitting, on several-hours-long bombing missions. Crews felt very lucky to touch back down here later in the day. Hundreds of fliers who lifted off in the morning never did.

Tibenham’s landing strips were returned to the RAF after hostilities ceased, and the base saw some service in the Cold War before a glider club took over; the gliders still operate there. The club historian, a pilot himself, is Eric Ratcliffe, and Eric graciously spent his afternoon showing me around what was once the air base. Precious few buildings remain from the small city that once held 3,000 American airmen, but I saw what was where and got the lay of the land, including the barracks where Stewart stayed (some of those quarters are still standing), and the primary local point of reference, the All Saints Tibenham Church, built in the sixteenth century. Its high tower and the north-south railway nearby served as vital landmarks to American pilots returning at dusk to nearly identical bases in the endless rolling farm country of East Anglia. So many air bases in fact, that mid-air collisions of heavy bombers taking off for morning missions in the overcast were a common occurrence in 1943 and 44, with great loss of life. Local lore includes very specific references to what body parts of American fliers rained down where around the railway station after a particular mid-air collision of B-24s.

I learned a lot during my two days of visits to Tibenham, and I know it will lend command and authenticity to my recounting of the 445th Bomb Group and Stewart’s squadron, the 703, as I describe his role in the war and his missions. But I also flip the story around and describe the experiences of others who crossed paths with Stewart and the daily bomber stream, civilians in Holland and Germany, and those in the Luftwaffe up against these great flying armadas. To many, Jimmy Stewart was a hero; to others he was one of the “terror fliers” of World War II. One of my colleagues in this enterprise dubbed the approach a “360-degree look at the war,” and that’s exactly what I’m going for.

The tower of All Saints Tibenham Church was a welcome sight that let pilots know they were home.

The high tower of All Saints Tibenham Church was visible for miles and served as a welcome sight to pilots struggling toward home.

Stewart’s a complex character and one I can identify with in some ways given that he and I both grew up in sister small western Pennsylvania college towns in coal country. But he’s also an enigma, a closed book of a human who hid a nervous stomach and waves of self-doubt about his looks, his attractiveness, and his talent behind a slow-thinking, slow-talking persona. Then there’s the most perplexing question of all: Why did Stewart so willingly step away from a Hollywood career that included the great triumph of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and then an Academy Award for The Philadelphia Story to sign up for service when there wasn’t even a war to go fight? The obvious answer is that Jimmy Stewart was a flag-waving American patriot. Hooray for Jimmy! But the reality is quite different and something I look forward to sharing with you when Mission goes to press at the end of 2016.

For now, may I just say I’m home after four days of domestic and nine days of European travel and ready to get back to work and finish my book. It’s a story with a great main star and terrific supporting cast, and it’s so crazy in so many ways that it simply has to be true.

Mission: Jimmy Stewart by Robert Matzen

World War II expert Eric Ratcliffe (left), my guide, poses with me at the 445th Bomb Group Memorial in the fading light of a raw November day. I like to believe the spirits of all those airmen of the 445th are posed around us and wishing me happy landings for telling their stories. Many thanks to Eric for his time, patience, and expertise that day.

On the eve of war

Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert Matzen

I came across this letter on a Facebook (posted by Brian Lee Anderson) Carole Lombard fan page. It’s written in Lombard’s own hand for Movie Mirror magazine in celebration of Thanksgiving 1939, and I find it evocative on a couple of levels. I don’t know how much prepping she did or who might have helped her with this piece. This was her RKO period so it’s not a Russell Birdwell/Selznick PR piece, and maybe it’s just Carole being Carole and winging it. The sentiment is beautiful, democratic, and gives a nod to the fact that, hey, worldly possessions are important. It’s better to have them than not to have them.

The handwriting itself shows an unusual amount of concentration and workmanship from someone who often scribbled like your average M.D. A handwriting analyst might say that the lack of slant in one direction or the other indicates a practical, down-to-earth person, which she certainly was, and the occasional backward slant reveals a rebellious streak that just couldn’t be contained.

Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert Matzen

Carole Lombard at about the time she wrote her Thanksgiving 1939 open letter in Movie Mirror magazine.

To me the allusion to world events hits closest to home because in working on my new manuscript, Mission: James Stewart and World War II, I am forced to confront human suffering that’s at the least uncomfortable and often devastating. She wrote her Thanksgiving message about a year after Kristallnacht, the night of broken glass symbolizing the beginning of the end for Jews in Nazi-occupied territories. She wrote it two months after the invasion of Poland that sent refugees streaming westward. She wrote it with the German war machine rising to strike against France and England and with Hitler rallying hundreds of thousands in Nuremberg. She wrote it as the conflict between Japan and China raged for its second year. She wrote it in anticipation of a war that would claim more than 400,000 American lives, including her own.

The Allies would prevail in what would become World War II, and their spoils included the writing of the history of it. I continue to struggle to uncover accounts of civilians under the rain of Eighth Air Force bombs because the losers in war don’t get to tell their stories. But if war is hell, then those unlucky enough to watch 200 B-24 Liberators fly over and unload their “cartons of eggs” truly knew what hell was all about. Before you say, “Well, they were the enemy, that’s what they deserved,” consider that the bombs fell on civilians who had learned that challenging Nazi authority meant death; on Jews hiding in Berlin basements for years; and on Dutch, French, and Polish nationals forced to work in German factories. Tens of thousands of these humans were blown back to their molecular components by the Americans of the Mighty Eighth.

And that’s what I see written between the lines of Carole Lombard’s Thanksgiving 1939 message. There’s a palpable sense of foreboding, that history was about to blow through in the form of a worldwide cyclone and no one, absolutely no one, would be spared.